Having refined the art of packing the right clothes for the right destination, spent years honing my skills in travelling as light as possible and circumnavigated the (ridiculous) liquids restrictions as far as reasonably possible, I have come to understand that the single most important part of African travel is having a suitable bag.
It doesn’t help if you are a wizard at the art of folding clothing into crease-free, super-flat and even more super-organized piles if the bag you are putting everything into is a complete dinosaur and should have been put out to pasture with the cretaceous period.
And all of the skillful arrangement of carefully weighed clothing and cosmetics adds up to nothing if your bag tips the scales at more than King Kong with the Empire State Building in his left hand and a distressed blonde in his right!
So. Baggage is key to successful, stress free bush travel. Right? Well, it certainly has its part to play.
The eternal conundrum I am faced with is whether to head for the exclusive luggage shop and shell out lots of money on a super-efficient, lightweight as possible, all-singing, all-dancing designer brand or select the cheapest, most rubbish piece of baggage I can lay claim to at the local supermarket. The reason I ask this question is that when you travel as much as I do you soon realize that airline baggage controllers do not distinguish between designer labels and care not for price tags – your bags get completely stuffed up whether you paid a small fortune for them or got them in the bargain bin at less than cost.
So, the question which really needs to be asked is “will my bag stand up to the rigours of modern airline travel?” There are two answers to that, in my opinion: “rarely” and “only on a good day”.
Let’s first assume that your bag arrives at the same destination as you do, on the same flight as you do. These days it seems that a lot of major airlines have trouble routing bags to the right place at the right time. So, always be thankful when you see your bag on the carousel, presuming, of course, that there is a carousel at your destination airport! And a word to the wise, an awful lot of international safari destination airports don’t have carousels, but merry men literally hurling your bags through small holes in walls onto either the floor or roughly hewn counter tops.
Your bag, when you wave it goodbye as you check into your usually first-world departure airport will be treated like a bag of potatoes by the majority of the people who handle it from that moment on, be they first, second, third world or extraterrestrials!
Be warned – fragile stickers don’t work. I have lost count of the number of times my “fragile” bag has appeared upside down and battered to pieces on a carousel or at the bottom of a huge, dangerously teetering pile of luggage on the back of a tractor and trailer. Nothing works, except sheer luck and the possibility that the person handling your bag has some vague idea that its contents are actually of value.
So. Spending hundreds or thousands on Louis Vuitton’s finest or the very latest Antler miracle is not a wise thing. I tried the cheap and cheerful approach but found myself virtually buying shares in the local “el cheapo” luggage store so decided to go for a good, middle of the road bag – the “iSpot” duffel bag range from Travelite.
The first thing you need to take into account on the majority of safaris where small planes are involved as connecting flights is that a) they usually have a weight limit of around 15kg and b) require soft, squishy bags which can be squeezed into small spaces, not massive, stainless steel megalodons filled with everything but the kitchen sink!
My iSpots are soft, relatively light and have a built-in wheely handle which means I don’t always have to search around for a trolley. Their zips are concealed, and all have locking facilities on them (so many lightweight bags only have locking docks on their main zips and not on side pockets, which irritates the hell out of me!).
They are rugged, hard-wearing and spacious enough for two-week trips or small enough for a couple of days here and there.
Fully packed, I rarely exceed 15kg on my main bag and take a back-pack with me for cameras, binos, netbook and in-flight necessities. However, in spite of this, my main iSpot duffel bag, which cost me in excess of R1500 (around 150 euros or $200) has been replaced three times in the last two years by three different airlines, thanks to being damaged by baggage handlers.
So, once you have got a light, squishy, hard-wearing, rugged enough and spacious enough bag, it’s really just a question of time before it gets damaged by an airline or its handlers.
That aside, the volume of your bag should be taken into account. My big duffel has a 71-liter capacity, which is around average. There are some excellent duffels out there, especially those designed for diving or adventure pursuits, which offer more space, but remember that a tightly packed soft bag is better than a loosely packed one because it keeps your belongings from rolling around and getting damaged, and your cosmetics or bath bag from getting a bang and leaking its contents all over your clothes.
A wet bag is a great idea for cosmetics and I always take the added precaution of placing it in a run-of-the-mill high-street supermarket bag and tying the handles up tight to prevent unwanted spillages.
I decant things like shampoo and moisturizer into small containers, or buy them in small bottles to begin with (the Body Shop, for example, has some great small bottles of products which are ideal for travelling).
At the end of the day, your choice of bag is peculiar to you and your needs, what you want to put in it and where you are going. Whether you spend a lot of money on it or not, just make sure that it is secure with decent locks or, failing that, cable ties. Never, ever put anything of value in it (jewellery, cameras, computers, cellphones etc) and if it gets damaged by an airline’s baggage handlers, make sure you stand up for your rights and get it either repaired or replaced.